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Release date: 3.18.22
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Growing up in rural Hopewell, New Jersey (population 2,010), Danielia Cotton stood out. Not just because she was only one of about seven Black kids in her junior high school, but because of the compelling power of her shockingly big voice, which stopped people in their tracks from early on. Danielia’s natural gift--raw, searing vocal chops combined with a deep, buttery tone--draws from the two different rich traditions that she absorbed early in her youth. On the one hand, she couldn’t get enough of what her friends and neighbors were listening to: AC/DC, Zeppelin, the Stones. On the other, she was her mother’s girl: daughter of a jazz singer and member of the church gospel choir, grooving to Mavis Staples, Etta James, Billie and Ella.
The happy collision of these two traditions is her new album, Rare Child, produced by Brad Jones (Jill Sobule, Over the Rhine) and co-produced by Joe Blaney (Shawn Colvin, Soul Asylum) and Danielia herself. On Rare Child, the sheer joy and pain she evokes in her songs instantly draw the listener in. She pulls, stretches and grips her lyrics with a strength that is startling considering this lovely young woman’s seemingly happy-go-lucky demeanor and petite frame. Appearances aside, like male counterparts Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone or crossover icon Tina Turner, Danielia not only has embraced the notion of Black Rock--she has redefined it.
Very early on, music played a major role in Danielia’s life. It became not only the focus of what would become her career, but also, her saving grace and her best friend. “If I didn’t have music saving me every day, I wouldn’t have a place to put a lot of emotions that I have that could potentially be destructive,” says Danielia. “It’s how I survive.” Citing her mother, Danielia speaks lovingly about musical influences that aren’t quite from the playbook of most Rock performers. “I loved Phyllis Hyman’s `Somewhere In My Lifetime,’” she says, “and Chaka Khan. But not just the popular stuff. It was her version of `I Loves You, Porgy’ from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. My mom also listened to things like Bonnie Raitt and Loggins & Messina. But for me, it was listening to Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder’s album Songs In The Key of Life: it was about that tone that I thought was the best. And Nancy Wilson singing `Guess Who I Saw Today’’; the first time I heard that I was like, `I don’t even like that genre’ but I couldn’t get over the delivery. There was so much emotion. I like artists that were living and feeling whatever it was they were singing about.”
Interestingly, more than any other important influence was Danielia’s fascination with musical movies of the 1930’s and 40’s. “I had a thing for Bing Crosby,” she bashfully admits. “I was an old soul. What entertained me didn’t entertain most kids. But we had a deep life. So anything that would take me out of that life was important. Anything that was singing and had a story to it I liked.” A very young Danielia would stand up on a wood crate in her backyard, grab a stick, and sing Donna Summer’s `Last Dance’ to the trees and a few semi-curious deer, When she realized she could really belt it out, she decided she might make singing her career. Soon, 12 year-old Danielia joined her mom and aunts in a gospel group called Brookes Ensemble Plus, where she learned harmony. Around that time, Danielia received her first guitar. While her mother couldn’t afford to pay for lessons, she gave Danielia a `How To’ book that the young writer devoured, locking herself in her room until she came out a comfortable player and had penned her first song.
Danielia’s home life wasn’t always easy. Danielia never met her father, a native of Puerto Rico. Moving around a lot and experiencing the hardships of racism, Danielia had to grow up fast. And although Danielia came from very humble beginnings, the one thing the family was not lacking was love and determination to succeed. Raising four kids on her own without a college degree, Danielia’s mother nevertheless became the head of accounting for Houghton-Mifflin Publishing and was determined to make sure her children had the best education possible. To that end, books were in no short supply at home (spoils of the trade), and the children learned to read at an early age, while calculators were treated as toys. Following her mother’s example, Danielia strove to make the most of her opportunities, and in her junior year of high school, she gained entry to the Mercer County School of Performing Arts. Danielia excelled and graduated at the top of her class, going on to obtain a full scholarship to the esteemed Bennington College in Vermont, from which she graduated with a degree in Theater Arts.
Bennington was a major turning point for Danielia. There, she studied with the great avant garde jazz trumpeter Bill Dixon. Noted for his vocalic playing style, Dixon, who founded the Black Music division at Bennington, gave Danielia the guidance she needed to refine her distinctive power as a singer. By her junior and senior year, she was studying tutorials. “He trained my ear. I’d go to his class every day, and he’d hit a note on his trumpet and ask me to match it. I thought it was the most God-awful thing. But I realize today that my pitch is the way it is because of this training. He taught me basic music theory, keyboard harmony and what music reading and writing was. During my senior year, he sent me to study singing with the classical department so I could learn breath, which is where I found my power. He would die to know I was singing rock ‘n roll now instead of jazz, but he changed my whole perception of how you sing a song.”
Using classic songs like Eden Ahbez’s “Nature Boy” and reading the lyrics as a soliloquy, Danielia learned that “in any good song, there’s a story; it’s a moment. And it’s the same when you get onstage with those same set of words and discover how you can convey that story to an audience. It helped me realize why I loved singing. It was about the story, the tone—it wasn’t about all the `tricks.’ It was about singing the line straight. That took more skill.” She credits Dixon with teaching her how to “sing `ugly’.” She explains, “You have to be able to sing the wrong notes if you ever want to sing beautifully. You have to be able to be `ugly’ sometimes. That’s where you find your true beauty.”
Quietly writing her own songs under wraps while she studied, she performed several original compositions at a recital after she spent her final year at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. Drawing raves for her performance as well as her songs, she had learned well by then that her lyrics had to be pulled from her own life experiences in order to be authentic and received in such a positive light. “I have to write from what I know about. It’s like in acting. I can’t play a character who’s 70 at the age of 30. I don’t know what 70 is. I could go to my grandmother and ask her and she might say, `It’s a loss of faith, it’s tired’ or whatever, but I don’t know this because I haven’t been there. I could only play a role and be true to something I felt. Because then it’s true.”
As a performer, Danielia is glad she grew up pre-American Idol. “Most kids today, if you ask why they want to perform, they’ll say they `want to be a star’ or `be in the music business.’ I liked music not because I saw it as a way to get out of the life I lived and have more than what I had, which wasn’t that much. I did it because it was fun; it was like a drug. I’ve always felt a little selfish when people say, `I do it for the people.’ I do it because it does something for me.”
Radio stations across the country appreciated Danielia’s unique rock talent. After Danielia released her first studio album, 2005’s Small White Town (Hipshake Records), WXPN/Philadelphia and home of the nationally syndicated World Café named her “Artist To Watch” in 2005, slotted the album’s soulful single, “It’s Only Life” into heavy rotation, and featured her on their HDNetwork broadcast of “On Stage at World Café Live”. WXRT in Chicago featured Danielia on New Year’s Eve, where she brought down the house in a live performance broadcast by ABC.
Extensive national touring followed. Danielia traveled the breadth of the country, opening for some of the greatest acts in music, from Blues legends Buddy Guy and Etta James to Pop Rock giant Bon Jovi, to the Southern Rock royalty of Gregg Allman, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Little Feat. Crossing boundaries was no problem for the versatile Danielia, who has wowed alternative rock audiences of the Flaming Lips, Staind and Collective Soul, among many others.
Danielia’s unique talent drew rave reviews, with notices on her “raw intensity” (Essence magazine), her “soulful voice and searing telecaster” (Time Out NY) and for possessing “the sort of voice for which the phrase `force of nature’ was coined” (Austin American-Statesman). Relix magazine named Danielia one of the “5 Artists You Should Know” in 2007 and New York’s Amsterdam News proclaimed Danielia “a powerful musician that cannot be ignored.”
Those high accolades often come from those who’ve been blown away by Danielia’s live act. Audiences that experience Danielia and her band live are hit hard with the sheer emotionalism of her songs, and Danielia’s performance style is all about revisiting the feelings that brought those songs into being in the first place. “I give you everything. I’m going back, and these stories are obviously from my life. I’ve picked moments that I can safely go back to time and time again without getting to a place where I can’t collect myself. But, in my songs, I’ll go to places that are still an issue for me. Like in the song `Rare Child,’ I say, `On the day I was born/I hope my daddy cried.’ Because I’m still dealing with those issues. So you have to be careful. There’s a responsibility to your audience too, because some of your fans will go there with you. And they don’t know how to pull back either; they’re riding on what you’ve given them. You’re handing them a drug too.” Going back to the idea of music as an emotional release, for the artist and the audience in equal measure, Danielia not only accepts the responsibility, but rather, she is flattered and thrilled by it and sees it as an opportunity. “When you hear some of the stories that people tell you and how the songs have helped them through tough times, that’s as good as somebody telling you your album went platinum,” Danielia says. “That’s what it’s supposed to be about, and then you think, `This might not be why I wrote this song, but this is what this person got out of it,’ and I’m glad.”
A stiff self-critic, Danielia admits to pre-show and pre-recording bouts of nervousness. “Eric Clapton always says, `If I’m not nervous, I don’t want to do it anymore.’ But then that’s where you get all that energy and you end up giving it back to the audience. And it means just as much to me in the studio when I record. At no time do I take it lightly. I want it to come out well. So it’s harder than live, but I like to record with the band in the studio and I can pull from that energy.”
But, as much as Danielia is a performer, she is also a proud and dedicated songwriter. Inspiration for songwriting for Danielia comes at all hours, and her mindset is to grab the moment no matter when it comes and write it down. “I’ve woken up from dreams with an idea, and it was my grandfather that used to say `God woke you up, and wants you to go get a pen and piece of paper and write it down.’ Otherwise, the idea you had goes away. If you’re lucky enough to get the call, you gotta pick the phone up,” she says. As for when this inspiration hits, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t always as a result of sadness or depression in Danielia’s case. “It does tend to happen on a cloudy, rainy day, and I do agree with artists that it does happen at moody moments, or when you first wake up, when you’re feeling not necessarily at the peak of happiness. But you can’t always be the source for everything. I collaborate a lot. Like on `Make U Move’ I collaborated with Kareem Devlin and Shelby Gaines, who I worked with on a lot of the songs on this record. The beauty of co-writing is that when you collaborate, your co-writers take you to a place you normally wouldn’t go.” For example, on ‘Make U Move,’ one of the most infectious, rocking tracks on Rare Child, “Kareem and Shelby brought the track, and I wrote the melody and the words, and there’s no way I would’ve come up with that myself.”
Danielia is very candid about why she would rather wear her heart on her sleeve in her songwriting than try to deliver her music through a manufactured persona. “Some people create characters to make it easier for them to perform, but that’s just not me. I feel that when someone pays to come see me, they’re coming to see me, and so I owe them that. And that’s more interesting to me. Rock ‘n roll is real, and that’s what people want.” Danielia describes Rare Child as “a party, in a sense. It starts out saying `I’m gonna rock your world’ but then it arcs, has some soulful moments, and has some upbeat moments. Like going to a really good party, it isn’t all non-stop `woo-hoo.’ You might get into a deep conversation with someone in one corner and share a joke with someone else in another. It’s an experience.”
In making Rare Child Danielia’s goal was to create an album that she could really play. “I think this is an album that the audience wanted,” she says. “And because we didn’t try to write singles or do anything like that, it came out being a real rock ‘n roll album, and that’s exactly the way you have to go about it. And when you’re lucky, it ends up being this great effort, which I think it is.”
The meaning behind the album title is at once personal and universal for Danielia. “When I’m out there, I don’t see too many Black girls slinging guitars. And I know they’re out there—Tracy Chapman, Toshi Reagon—but in the venues I’m doing and the genre I’m doing, a lot of times it’s just me. Music is so manufactured nowadays. I feel I go back more to the classics, and Rare Child just reminds me of more of the 70’s feel, and I think this album is a throwback to a time when music was less produced and a little bit more honest, accessible and realer. It doesn’t make it better or worse than anything that’s out there now, it just makes it what it is. Which is a little rare for right now. But a lot of people want that.” The Philadelphia Daily News concurs, saying ““Danielia’s music has the swagger of Let It Bleed-era Rolling Stones, her singing has the raw emotional power of Janis Joplin and her songwriting places her among the top new musical storytellers.”
Now releasing Rare Child on Adrenaline Records/ADA, Danielia has put her remarkable voice, heart, and soul into a record that truly rocks. A rare child indeed.
- American Blues Scene
- American Blues Scene
- Bluegrass Situation
- Billboard May 2008
- Billboard June 2008
- Chicago Sun-Times
- Grateful Web
- Glide Magazine
- Grateful Web
- Mondo Sonoro
- No Depression
- US Rocker
- American Songwriter
- NY Times
- LA Times
- Lucky Magazine
- NPR Interview
- WXPN Interview
- Philly Inquirer
- Minneapolis Star Tribune
- Venus Zine
- Herald Tribune
- Newark Star Ledger
- Dallas Morning News
- Village Voice
- Adam's World
- New Jersey Star Ledger
- New Jersey Stage
- Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel